By Truman C. Wang
If Robert Schumann’s orchestral music and concertos have not featured prominently in the standard repertoire alongside those of Mendelssohn and Brahms, it’s probably due to his mental disorder that somehow made people think less of his works. This month, the LA Phil put Schumann front and center in a comprehensive survey of his works – chamber music, symphonies, piano and cello concertos, an oratorio – including an illuminating talk by Dr. Richard Kogan on mental illness and creativity. The results were quite revelatory. Schumann achieves the expressive power and pathos in his music not from the virtuoso display of Chopin and Liszt, but from the obsessive, enigmatic repetitions of musical anagrams (like C-H-A-A or A-S-C-H). Any performer worth his/her salt would have no problem playing the notes of the most demanding virtuoso passages, but to decipher the enigma in Schumann’s works and make a convincing case for it takes the skills of a true artist.
One such artist is pianist Mitsuko Uchida, whose reading of the A-Minor Piano Concerto (Friday, May 18) was by turn fiery and lyrical, steely and gentle. One of the joys of Ms. Uchida’s playing was the melding together of the piano sounds with the winds into a canvass of great beauty. In the first movement’s big virtuoso cadenza, each note was imbued with color and meaning, and not virtuosity for its own sake. In the second movement Intermezzo, the simple staccato notes were strung together into a melodic line of great pathos. There were a few mishaps and wrong notes along the great journey of rediscovery, but one must credit Ms. Uchida for making a great case for Schumann’s somewhat neglected piano concerto as a Romantic masterpiece. Gustavo Dudamel was a most sympathetic partner on the podium and coaxed some magical sounds from the winds and the cellos, especially during the Andantino.
The Symphony No. 1 “Spring” was right up Dudamel’s alley, brimming with youthful vivacity and energy, and featured some steller brass playing as well as the very prominent timpani parts in the capable hands of Joseph Pereira.
With the Sunday, May 27 program, we heard the late works of Schumann that share one characteristics in common: all have movement titles and expression marks in German instead of the traditional Italian -- Nicht zu schnell (not too fast), langsam (slow), lebhaft (lively), etc. By this time in his life, in 1850 post-revolution Germany, Schumann wanted to promote German nationalism through his art. The opera Genoveva was a product of this period, with a story culled from German medieval history and arias replaced by lieder. All that is heard with any frequency today from the opera is the overture, which maestro Dudamel led the orchestra in a sweeping, forceful account that made one yearn to see the complete opera alongside other German Romantic classics like Weber’s “Der Freischutz” and Marschner’s “Der Vampyr”.
The Cello Concerto is in the same A-minor key as the Piano Concerto but performed a lot less. The music is quite mellow and delicate in the first two movements, requiring a sympathetic player to make sense of its muted emotions. Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta showed her affinity for Schumann in a display of refined filigree work and sinewy power often within the same phrase or passage. Ms. Gabetta received ideal support from the orchestra, particularly the enchanting winds and cellos in the second movement Romanza.
Schumann’s last published Symphony No. 4 in 1851 was actually a revision of his failed 1841 work, intended to be his second symphony. We have Clara to thank for urging Robert to revise the earlier symphony; however, Brahms was quite fond of the 1841 version with its lighter and more youthful character. LA Phil played the heavier 1851 version with expanded strings and brass sections. Maestro Dudamel’s reading was full of good-natured high spirits in the outer movements and a memorable scherzo with a deliciously dreamy rallentando in the trio.
The theme for the final two weeks of the season is “Schumann Focus”, but the focus is also on the great work by the members of the LA Phil to bring out the beauties of Schumann’s neglected masterpieces.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.